How Your Ego Is Hurting Your Romantic Life
Buddhists often speak about “attachment,” and according to the Buddhist “Four Noble Truths,” attachment is the cause of suffering. Remove attachment, and you will no longer suffer.
This relates to “ego” because ego (i.e. a permanent and unchanging self, in Buddhist terms, atta) is the illusion that we are a certain way, life is a certain way, or that we have to behave a certain way, which creates attachment. Ego is the part of us that has to always be right, can’t change plans, or insists that something must be done in an x, y, or z fashion. Ego wants to be in complete control and micromanages everything.
Ego is inflexible and boring, and misses the surprises and lessons in life while it’s trying to perfectly keep everything in control, which it can never do. Ego lives in the future, is always worried about outcome, and then is never actually happy or content once that outcome arrives. Ego’s attachment is like someone who clings so hard to a precious item that she destroys it.
Our egos cause us to “cling” to expectations (such as “I must be engaged by 25”), and if we don’t meet these expectations, we suffer. The problem, as Buddhists put it, is that life is full of ups and downs, so therefore you can never avoid suffering by trying to completely control life via ego. I should note that avoiding attachment does not mean not trying. It simply means doing the most honest, authentic thing without clinging to the result.
This is where ego can destroy your romantic life, and why it is destroying it for many people, especially in 2020, where social media and other factors provide plenty of fodder for unhealthy attachment to outcomes because it is so easy to compare ourselves to others.
When you live from ego, you make excuses, deny yourself the things you really want, and experience anxiety and frustration.
Let me give you a great example of living in ego, and how it leads to frustration. Let me also acknowledge that even telling this story accurately is challenging, because my ego wants to leave out details that will make me look imperfect. Why? Because I’m a dating coach! My ego says “if you’re a dating coach, you aren’t allowed to ever struggle with dating!” Damn ego. Anyway…
A few years ago I was really trying to find someone to date. I was working a lot, not around a lot of single women I was attracted to, and it was challenging to meet new people. The online dating apps were drying up thanks to algorithm changes.
I went to an Arkells concert, because I enjoyed the band and loved the intimate venue. I was having fun with no expectations of anything except to be there and have fun.
With that attitude, without even trying, I met a few women. It was a really fun night and almost magical how quickly I got along with them and they practically asked for my number.
I went to a concert a few days later, and I built up the expectation that I would meet people there. So instead of going to enjoy a concert, I created a lot of expectations.
And…that concert was awful. It wasn’t fun. I didn’t appreciate the music the way I should (even though there were great bands there like Label Me Lecter and Shaed). I didn’t end up meeting anyone. I ended up leaving early in frustration to sit in another place pretty much alone. The funny thing is that for a lot of people that concert was probably amazing! In fact, it objectively was. However my attachment and ego made it a miserable experience.
And, to protect my ego (and that of my friend’s) we both concluded “we didn’t want to meet anyone anyway!” Yeah right! The ego can be such a liar.
A few weeks later I wanted to go out for St. Patrick’s Day. Rather than just looking for an event that was fun and that I enjoyed, I meticulously looked for a place where I thought the most attractive people would be. After spending literally hours doing this, when I showed up, the crowd was thin. I lamented that “nobody was here” (which wasn’t true).
I ended up bolting from there and driving to various places, desperately chasing the outcome of being in a huge crowd of attractive people. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have fun, didn’t find the crowd I sought, and didn’t meet anyone. I did, however, suffer. I was angry, frustrated, and resentful.
It’s not just me. It’s ego that tells you have have to be married by 30, so you better settle down with that guy who does nothing for you! So, in chasing this ego version of happiness, you end up unhappy….saddled to a dude you don’t even really like for years, until the divorce that is!
It’s ego that tells you that if you’re in your 30s you can’t date someone in their 20s, even though you’re genuinely happy around that person. So, you are attached to appropriateness, so yeah, be careful what you wish for: you’ll end up dumping that younger person, and be with a person who is very appropriate to your family and friends but whom you can’t stand!
It’s ego that tells you even though he makes you happy and you have chemistry, that his job isn’t good enough. So, your attachment to status means you’ll have a big house and nice car with a guy you hate, which means that big house will just feel like a well-decorated prison.
It’s ego that says you have to have a partner to be happy. So, you spend all day worrying about or looking for a partner, which, ironically, makes you needy and unattractive. When you do find a partner, the solace you sought from the relationship will never come because relationships bring their own problems.
One exercise I have found very helpful in lessening my ego’s influence in dating, relationships, and life in general is to use the “maybe exercise” outlined in Susan Jeffers’ great book Embracing Uncertainty. It is very simple and I dismissed it at first (because my ego basically said “if it’s simple, it can’t work!), but it is a very powerful technique.
Whenever you find yourself expressing attachment or expectation to something, simply add “or maybe I won’t” or some variant to the phrase.
“I’ll meet someone great on Tinder…or maybe I won’t.”
“She and I will end up getting married…or maybe we won’t.”
“If I approach her, she’ll reject me…or maybe she won’t.”
“If this relationship ends I’ll be devastated…or maybe I won’t.”
“She’ll come back into my life…or maybe she won’t.”
“I won’t be satisfied unless I date someone who is ____…or maybe I will be.”
“He probably won’t text me back…or maybe he will.”
Try it! It’s simple and actually works. Avoid phrasing it like “I don’t care if he texts me back” or “I don’t really want to meet someone tonight.” Remember the ego loves to lie to protect itself, because the illusion it creates is fragile. If you do care and do want to meet someone, to phrase it like this is simply your ego getting in the way even more.
Your ego may be why you’re dateless or in an unhappy relationship.
As Alan Watts points out, when discussing nirvana, when you give up the illusion that things have to be a certain way (to quote Elsa, when you “let it go”), then you can finally breathe out and let out a “whewwwwww,” which is one translation of the word nirvana. And that’s when you’ll see a shift in how you approach dating and relationships, and also in the outcome.